Evidence-Based: Does the Science of Reading Really Work?
The science of reading is a hot-button topic being discussed, with many school district leaders implementing science of reading-based curricula. But does it really work? Research has shown that when classroom and district leaders implement evidence-based practices, students and teachers benefit. Students are much more likely to find reading success when their instruction is based on the science of reading, while teachers are able to find empowerment in supporting all of their students on their journey toward literacy.
What is the Science of Reading?
The phrase “science of reading” has been thrown around a lot in recent years, so it’s worth clarifying what it means. The science of reading is a gold-standard body of research that spans decades. Multiple fields of research have contributed to the science of reading, including education, neuroscience, developmental psychology, and cognitive psychology.
The science of reading provides two-fold evidence—it helps us understand the skills and processes needed to read, and it also proves how to teach students those skills effectively. As a result, models such as Scarborough’s Reading Rope, the Simple View of Reading, and the Five Pillars of Early Literacy, along with the Structured Literacy approach, have been developed to apply the science of reading in curricula.
Science of Reading: Evidence-Based Instruction for All Ages
Instruction rooted in the science of reading means evidence-based, inclusive, and individualized instruction for students of all ages and abilities. While there are numerous approaches to delivering such instruction, the key foundation lies in equipping educators with the knowledge and tools they need to support every student.
If teachers aren’t taught the tenets of reading science (and 49% of teacher prep programs do not cover these enough), professional learning programs aligned with the science of reading can help.
As one teacher puts it, “The knowledge [Lexia] LETRS® [a science of reading professional learning program] provides simply makes us more educated and effective teachers of literacy. I am thrilled with the gains my kids are making with both reading and writing, and what a difference we’re seeing with them”
Along with well-educated teachers, tools like science of reading-based software programs can help improve literacy rates. Both science of reading-trained teachers and evidence-based programs can adapt to students’ abilities and skill sets, ensuring all students master reading at their own pace.
Like science of reading-based professional learning, evidence-based reading programs with adaptive blended learning models are a great long-term investment in students’ education. Programs that provide differentiated and data-driven literacy instruction are powerful tools in the hands of a dedicated teacher. These programs use the research behind the science of reading to support students on their journey toward literacy, while also keeping them engaged and excited about learning.
Programs Proven to Work
A great way to evaluate the efficacy of a literacy program is by looking to Evidence for ESSA—a nonpartisan, independent review organization that has been called the “Consumer Reports” of education programs. Evidence for ESSA reviews formal research studies for quality and efficacy, assessing them objectively against federal standards laid down in ESSA. Programs based in the science of reading usually receive “Strong” ratings.
To receive a Strong rating, an experimental study must use a random assignment of students, classrooms, or schools to both treatment and control groups. Strong-rated programs also have larger effect sizes, which indicates a greater impact on student reading compared to other programs with lower effect sizes.
This holds true regardless of the grade level—take Lexia® Core5® Reading and Lexia® PowerUp Literacy® as examples. Core5 is an elementary program for students of all abilities, while PowerUp is designed for adolescents who need extra help with reading skills. Both of these programs are proven to help students learn to read, because they are both based in the science of reading. This is further proven through peer-reviewed research studies and Evidence for ESSA Strong ratings.
Evidence-Based Literacy Instruction for K–5
It is important for students of all ages to receive literacy education based on the science of reading, but this is especially so in the case of K–5 students. During this time in students’ education, they are learning foundational literacy skills that will be a critical part of bridging the gap between learning to read to reading to learn. These foundational skills are often referred to as the Five Pillars of Early Literacy, which are phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.
The depth and complexity at which these skills are taught depends on the student’s age and ability. Scaffolded learning is an integral part of science of reading-based instruction, which means educators introduce new concepts by providing clear instructions and guidance, and as the student gets more familiar they slowly allow the student to work more independently. As students are introduced to increasingly complex ideas, they should also be taught how these concepts fit into the whole of reading.
For one school in Virginia, implementing a science of reading-based literacy program led to 99% of students reading at or above grade level. The school’s reading specialist noted one of the reasons they were so successful is the explicit teaching of fundamental skills. “The program is helping them with their decoding and vocabulary,” she explains—skills that the science of reading has proven to be crucial in learning to read.
How the Science of Reading Helps Kindergarten & First-Grade Students
In earlier grades, phonemic awareness serves as the gateway to all other pillars of literacy. In other literacy models, students are encouraged to memorize words instead of sound—with this technique, if students are taught 10 words, they will be able to read 10 words. But with the science of reading’s focus on phonemic awareness, letter-sound correspondence, and phonics, students can be taught 10 letter sounds and be able to read 350 three-sound words, 4,320 four-sound words, and 21,650 five-sound words.
For younger students being introduced to literacy, concepts such as phonological awareness, letter-sound correspondence, and listening comprehension are critical skills they begin developing. Research has shown kindergarten students participating in science of reading-based programs score higher on the Gates-MacGinitie Reading Test®, Level PR (Pre-Reading), which tests for all three of those skills.
Another study on kindergarden and first-grade reading outcomes shows that when reading instruction explicitly targets six strands of reading (phonological awareness, phonics, structural analysis, automaticity/fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension), students performed nearly 20 points better on a standardized assessment than their peers without the same explicit instruction.
Does the Science of Reading Work for Middle and High School Students?
The science of reading works for students of all ages, including middle and high school students. As students begin entering middle school and high school, they are expected to have already made the jump from learning to read to reading to learn. But for some students, this isn’t the reality. For adolescents who are struggling, extra instruction and support with vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension can be invaluable. Evidence-based instruction in these skills helps students work toward college and career readiness.
For middle and high school students who are still struggling with bridging the gap from learning to read to reading to learn, adaptive blended learning models based on the science of reading will help get them there. Science of reading-based programs for middle and high school students can even help solidify their foundational reading skills (phonemic awareness, phonics, etc.) while also developing their understanding of more complex literacy skills.
Science of reading-based programs like PowerUp are proven to help students become stronger readers. In one Arkansas district, sixth-grade students showed a 16% increase on the state-standardized ACT Aspire Reading test after the district implemented the science of reading-based program.
In fact, one adolescent science of reading-based program is proven to be up to five times as effective as the average middle school reading intervention.
Does the Science of Reading Work for English Learners?
Emergent Bilingual students, also known as English Learners, make up more than 10% of the U.S. public school population. Research has shown that instruction based on the science of reading is especially helpful in teaching multilingual students how to read.
The National Committee for Effective Literacy (NCEL) emphasizes the importance of comprehensive, flexible, research-based, and targeted literacy instruction for Emergent Bilingual students. Studies show that only focusing on word pronunciation and phonics is insufficient for developing English literacy skills in Emergent Bilingual students. Educators should instead opt for a holistic approach to literacy development, encompassing all the components of skilled literacy while also tailoring instruction to individual student needs. According to the NCEL, an effective strategy involves integrating and scaffolding these skills, while also capitalizing on students' home language skills to facilitate cross-language connections.
In one study, Emergent Bilingual kindergarten students saw significant reading gains after a year of science of reading-based instruction, closing the reading gap with their non-EL peers.
Emergent Bilingual students in particular benefit from educators taking a Structured Literacy approach that implements explicitly taught skills, scaffolded lessons, and integration of their heritage language knowledge. When educators fully understand the science of reading and how to implement it in the classroom, it can significantly support all students in becoming proficient readers.
This holds true even for older students. In one Michigan school district, using a science of reading-based literacy program helped 46% of Emergent Bilingual students hit their end-of-year Lexile® growth goal early by several months.
How The Science of Reading Works for Teachers and Educators
While it is important students are taught literacy through evidence-based instruction, it is just as important that educators fully understand the science of reading to provide adequate instruction. When teachers know how to explicitly teach concepts like phonemic awareness, phonics, syntax, morphology, etc., they are ultimately more effective at teaching all students how to read—regardless of their skill level or ability.
Structured Literacy is the most effective approach to teaching students how to read because it is based entirely on science of reading research. Structured Literacy instruction is defined as explicit, systematic, cumulative, diagnostic, and responsive instruction.
Along with Structured Literacy, it is important educators understand the science that goes into this method of instruction. That’s why professional development courses based on the science of reading can be so helpful for teachers. The better teachers understand the why and how of learning to read, the more effective they will be in teaching students.
This is evident in one Louisiana school district, where teachers received training in the science of reading and subsequently saw 33% gains on their students’ STAR Early Literacy tests.
Given the challenges posed by a national teacher shortage and the ESSER funding deadline, finding ways to prioritize science of reading-based professional development is crucial for supporting both students and teachers in the long run.
The Science of Reading Works for Students and Teachers
The science of reading is a gold-standard body of research, and instruction based on the science of reading has shown to be more effective at teaching all students how to read. It’s in the name—evidence-based instruction is proven to work. Decades worth of research has shown that instruction based on the science of reading works, with 95% of students having the ability to read proficiently with evidence-based instruction (a dramatic leap from the current 35% of students that can read at NAEP Profiecent or higher level).
Looking for more proof? See the research on multiple science of reading-based solutions, including an elementary program, secondary program, and a professional learning program.
To learn more about the science of reading and how to bring it into your school district, take a look at our solutions page that provides resources for educators and students of all ages.
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